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Devolution: dead or default?

Devolution: dead or default?

🕔14.Jun 2018

Two seemingly opposite but not mutually exclusive diagnoses of the state of devolution emerged from the International Business Festival in Liverpool yesterday, writes Kevin Johnson

Either, devolution is all but dead. Or, Mayors should take responsibility for problems in their area until someone stops them. As Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram said, “the devolution deal doesn’t tell me what I can’t do.”

To emphasise the point, a former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister stated that Mayors should involve themselves in sorting out schools and neglected council estates. Meanwhile, a whole tier of local government should be swept away.

Lord Heseltine is a political statesman you can’t keep down, no matter how much Theresa May wishes. Yesterday, when he took to the ‘Futures’ stage in Exhibition Centre next to the Mersey, his topic was devolution – although Brexit was never far from his mind.

He followed a panel of five Metro Mayors, including our own Andy Street. Given the absence of any woman in the current stable of Mayors, Jude Kelly – the Liverpudlian artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London – took the middle chair.

The first session of the day featured Sir Howard Bernstein, former chief executive of Manchester City Council, and Tom Bloxham, founder of Urban Splash which is celebrating 25 years regenerating spaces to make them attractive for working, living and playing. The event was organised by Downtown in Business as part of a special day at the Festival: Devolution, Innovation and the Business Effect.

There is a great deal of unanimity amongst the Mayors, who met later to call on the Government to devolve powers over the Apprenticeship Levy. But there was one moment of disagreement when Andy Street objected to Jude Kelly’s analysis – which had been shared by all the Mayors who spoke after her – that Mayors’ ambitions were capped by London, were waiting for Government and the regions had been left to, yet again, do the “industrial heavy lifting.”

“You try and stop me” was the message Mayors should send to Government, according to Lord Heseltine.

An Optimism of Mayors

The man who came to Liverpool in the aftermath of the 1981 Toxteth riots and has been returning regularly ever since, told the audience that education is at the heart of everything. The position of English schools at 29th in the world league table was, he said, “frankly… a disgrace.”

There had been a long term acceptance of indifferent performance, especially in less well off areas.

I think the Mayors should get involved.

Mayors would not necessarily need to stay involved, but could encourage the appointment of headteachers and governors from which excellence in schools – regardless of area – usually flows.

Mayors had a mandate from an electorate. They should be about involving themselves in real problems with real people.

Lord Heseltine said the skills budget should be fully devolved.

The call for Mayoral involvement in schools is something of a contrast to Andy Street’s level of ambition for DfE devolution, which might be more pragmatic.

In interviews with Chamberlain Files and other media, Mayor Street has talked about the “pre-employment piece” which covers training and support for people to become skills or work ready, as well as yesterday’s call on apprenticeships. He is clearly not looking for a power grab covering secondary or indeed primary education.

Introducing the Renaissance Mayor

But, that is where many of the fundamental issues are to be found and which – to some degree – are left to be fixed by “pre-employment” support. Would it not be better to tackle the problem at source, rather than after the event?

The Mayors do not have ‘hard’ responsibility for schools and involvement would be very difficult indeed given the vice-like grip of the Department for Education and a system which involves school commissioners, Ofsted, academies and multi-academies as well as local authorities and Governing Bodies.

We do not anticipate Mayor Street will take up his Conservative friend’s idea anytime soon.

Michael Heseltine – who has managed to maintain successful careers as both a centre-right political figure and as founder of Haymarket Publishing – also had councils and councillors in his sights. Outside of Metro areas, two tiers of local government were not required.

Local enterprise partnerships needed the right people running them – another job for the Mayors to sort out.

In what will be music to the ears of former Birmingham city council leader John Clancy, local authority pension schemes were overdue for reform.

Together, Mayors should champion devolution and lobby the Prime Minister to form a committee of Mayors with her, just as David Cameron had promised. (Lord Heseltine remembers correctly – we were in the room at Number 10 at the time).

The devolution process has run out of steam as a consequence of Brexit, the former Environment and Defence Secretary said.

The same theme had been articulated by Sir Howard Bernstein earlier in the day. The Government was essentially in crisis as a result of managing the Brexit process.

Government had even less capacity to make decisions than normal.

Andy Burnham said that “quick help from the centre” was not there.

Mayor Burnham called for a “movement” of business and regional politicians to set devolution back on track.

The transport issue was the most acute challenge, as recent events in the North West had proved. However, he suggested that transport had moved up the national agenda due to the latest crisis and the work of Mayors.

We have more cranes in Manchester than anywhere else…they are asking questions of transport infrastructure we can’t answer.

Since the twitter feeds of Mayors Burnham and Rotheram were full of transport complaints, Mayors were passing the “pub test” set by panel chair Prof Michael Parkinson. More people do know who they are.

Andy Street chose to highlight progress with housing, with more homes being started, co-operation across 21 local authorities and the development of a Brownfield Institute.

He also said that business has been “mission critical” to devolution in the West Midlands. They were the “midwife” in the birth of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Mr Street highlighted universities – notably Warwick, Birmingham City and Birmingham – alongside local enterprise partnerships as being at the heart of a new local industrial strategy.

Mayors are the “only show in town” according to Mayor Burnham. They represent the beginnings of new politics, he said. They are about “place not party.”

At Tuesday’s State of the Region event, WMCA chief executive Deborah Cadman said “it drives me mad” that the Government is still seeking to do devolution deals rather than a continuing process of devolution.

As Andy Street remarked to the BBC recently, the philosophical commitment to devolution does not exist in Government to the same degree now George Osborne and David Cameron have left the stage.

Deals or no deals, Mayors are in place and they have an opportunity to change the way politics is done without waiting for Whitehall consent. Lord Heseltine said:

Don’t be afraid of being controversial figures.

Andy Street was on the front row and will have heard his political mentor crystal clear.

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